Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Explaining Contradictions

As much as I enjoyed Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), I get an even bigger kick from some of the attempts by Christian apologists to explain away the contradictions in the New Testament.

Here’s a classic from radio’s Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff:

I would like to deal with another supposed problem with the Bible that Bart Ehrman addresses in his book Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman states, “In John’s gospel, Jesus performs his first miracle in chapter 2, when he turns water into wine…and we’re told that ‘this was the first sign that Jesus did’ (John 2:11). Later in that chapter we’re told that Jesus did ‘many signs’ in Jerusalem (John 2:23). And then, in chapter 4, he heals the son of a centurion and the author says ‘This was the second sign that Jesus did.’ Huh? One sign, many signs and then the second sign?”
So what’s Hank’s answer to this contradiction? He figures that John kept two different running totals of signs, one for signs performed in Cana and one for signs performed in Jerusalem.

To begin with, as clearly communicated in the Gospel of John, the first
miraculous sign that Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee was to change water into
wine (John 2:1-11). Once again class, the first miraculous sign, number one in
Cana in Galilee was changing water into wine. Furthermore, in the Gospel of
John, the second miraculous sign Jesus performed while at Cana in Galilee was
healing the son of a centurion (John 4:26-54). What was the second sign Jesus
performed at Cana while in Galilee? All together now class: healing the son of a
centurion while at Cana in Galilee.
As should be patently obvious to Ehrman, the fact that Jesus did many signs in
Jerusalem is not a problem with the Bible at all.
You have to love the condescension, but the real red flag here is that Hanegraaff doesn’t quote the relevant verses from John. Anytime you see an apologist explaining the meaning of a Bible verse without quoting it, there is a darn good chance that it doesn’t say what he claims it is saying. Let’s take a look at John 2:23 in a few widely accepted translations:

  • This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him. NIV
  • This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. NASB
  • This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him. KJV
  • This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. NKJV

Note that not a single translation refers to “the signs that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee” as opposed to signs that Jesus did somewhere else. The only logical interpretation is that turning water into wine was the first of all the miracles that Jesus did rather than the first of the miracles that he did in a particular geographic location.

Here is another red flag: not only does Hank fail to quote the verse that refers to the second of Jesus’ miracles, he doesn’t even specifically identify John 4:54 as the verse where it occurs. He just refers to the entire passage John 4:26-54. The cynic might suspect that this verse is even worse for Hank’s argument and he would be right.
  • This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee. NIV
  • This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. NASB
  • This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judaea into Galilee. KJV
  • This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. NKJV

In this verse it's even clearer that John isn’t talking about the number of miracles that were performed in a particular place because the reference to Galilee is being used to establish the time period during which the miracle was performed. In order for Hank’s logic to apply, John would have to be referring to three running totals: the number of miracles Jesus performed when he began his ministry in Galilee, the number performed when he went to Jerusalem, and now, the number of miracles he performed after he returned from Jerusalem to Galilee.

Another entertaining harmonization I ran across was an attempt to reconcile the reaction of the women to finding the tomb empty in Matthew and in the original ending of Mark

    Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16:8

    So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Matthew 28:8
Some people might be stumped by this apparent discrepancy, but not Randy from 52 Blogs to Christ:
There are a number of ways to reconcile these verses. It should be noted first
that Matthew speaks of their intention, while Mark speaks of their action.
Second, while the women ran in fear, it may be that Mark was attempting to
convey their intention to avoid speaking on the way to the disciples. Third,
perhaps they “told” without ever “speaking.” Certainly, there is nothing here to
lead to the conclusion that the two are contradictory.

I don’t really get Randy’s first reconciliation. How does it help that Matthew is merely talking about their intention when what they intend to do is exactly what Mark says they didn’t do? Moreover, while Matthew does not actually describe the women telling the disciples about the empty tomb, the disciples end up going to Galilee to meet Jesus according to the instructions that Jesus gives the women so it seems pretty clear Matthew thinks that the women actually did the thing that Mark says they didn’t do.

I guess the second one isn’t the worst harmonization I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly better that the harmonization of Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18 in which Judas hangs himself from a tree, but the rope breaks and his body flips over in the air so that he lands head first with his stomach bursting open. Still, it is hard for me to buy that Mark intended the climactic point of his narrative to be that the women didn’t stop to tell any strangers about the empty tomb as they ran to tell the disciples.

The third one just strikes me as silly. Did the women mime the empty tomb for the rest of the disciples? Did they do an interpretive dance? Maybe they played charades.

What I love most though is Randy’s final assertion: “Certainly, there is nothing here to lead to the conclusion that the two are contradictory.” Oh really? It’s certain? There’s nothing at all? Not even a little bit? I guess that Randy and Hank figure that they make themselves appear erudite by being dismissive of anyone who has the gall to apply elementary logic to the Bible.

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